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Jesse Lava

Jesse is a campaign director at Brave New Foundation, where he runs Beyond Bars (http://beyondbars.org), which produces videos and graphics to curb mass incarceration.

May 2nd, 2013 1:56 PM

Would a White Girl Be Prosecuted for a Botched Science Experiment?

School-to-prison pipeline has the whiff of racism.

By now you've probably heard about Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old Florida girl who botched a science experiment with a plastic bottle and toilet cleaner. The bottle ended up exploding, and though no one was hurt and no property damaged, Kiera was expelled from high school and is now being prosecuted as an adult for discharging a weapon on school grounds. She had an exemplary behavioral record up until that point.

Kiera is, as one might expect, black. The notion of a white girl getting hauled off to jail for a harmless expression of intellectual curiosity is dubious, to say the least. And though the rise of "zero tolerance" policies in American schools should theoretically be race-neutral, that's not the reality. According to the Dignity in Schools campaign, "students of color... are more likely to be suspended and expelled than their peers for the same behavior" and "African American students [are] 3.5 times as likely to be expelled" as whites. What happened to Kiera Wilmot is part of a broader story about racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

Yet we don't have to go macro to get the whiff of racial bias in this case. The prosecutor who decided to throw the book at Kiera is one Tammy Glotfelty, an assistant state attorney in Florida. The officer who arrested Kiera named Glotfelty in his police report:

I THEN CONTACTED ASSISTANT STATE ATTORNEY TAMMY GLOTFELTY VIA TELEPHONE. I ADVISED [HER] OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE AND SHE ADVISED THIS OFFICER TO FILE THE CHARGES OF, POSSESSING OR DISCHARGING WEAPONS OR FIREARMS AT A SCHOOL SPONSORED EVENT OR ON SCHOOL PROPERTY F.S.S. 790.115 (1) AND MAKING, POSSESSING, THROWING, PROJECTING, PLACING, OR DISCHARGING ANY DESTRUCTIVE DEVICE F.S.S. 790.161 (A).

Sounds absurdly harsh, right? And there has been no reversal of this decision since then. But Glotfelty isn't always so heartless. Just last week, she decided not to prosecute a teenager named Taylor Richardson who accidentally shot and killed his younger brother with a BB gun. Glotfelty declared the case "a tragic accident." I don't doubt that it was. The Richardson kid will probably have nightmares about this incident for the rest of his life. But I do wonder how to make sense of a prosecutor who one week shows understandable compassion for a kid who made a terrible mistake and the next week insists on giving a teenager the harshest possible sanction for something that didn't harm anyone.

The first Tammy Glotfelty has a normal-sized heart in her chest. The second one has a hole there.

There is one fact, however, that may help us figure out the discrepancy between Glotfelty #1 and Glotfelty #2: The Richardson family is white.

Am I accusing Glotfelty of conscious racial bias? Nope. Self-awareness isn't the issue here. And maybe she has good reasons for treating these two cases differently. Hey, Taylor was 13 instead of 16; perhaps that makes all the difference in her eyes. But I can't shake the feeling that these two stories would have unfolded quite differently if the races of the children had been reversed. Somehow the white Kiera Wilmot would have had her story end with an adult touching her shoulder saying "I'm just glad you're alright." And the black Taylor Richardson would have heard platitudes about "taking responsibility" while being led away in handcuffs.

The school-to-prison pipeline has become a very real phenomenon in this country, at least in communities of color. Suspending and expelling students for minor misbehavior has become routine despite there being no evidence that these steps improve school safety and strong evidence that they are linked to increased odds of behavior problems later. Moreover, prosecuting children as adults can destroy their chances of becoming productive members of society later in life. If prosecutors like Tammy Glotfelty really want to get serious about public safety, they'll work to transform our racially disparate justice system and refuse to put harmless black students behind bars.

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